Could a hearing test help prevent dementia?

You are probably aware of the importance of a hearing test to identify any problems with your hearing and take action to remedy the situation. However, you may not realise that hearing problems may contribute to the development of dementia and that any aids prescribed after a hearing test may help to prevent it. 

What does the research say?

First of all, it must be emphasised that the research is still in its early stages, and it would be wrong to have any certainty about the results. Nonetheless, there are several studies that suggest a link between hearing loss and dementia. One such study was carried out by Dr Frank Lin at Johns Hopkins University, and found a definite association between hearing loss and cognitive decline. Other research has been carried out, for example by the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer's Prevention, which seems to confirm this link.

What causes the link?

One possibility is that hearing loss places a strain on 'cognitive reserve'. This means that so much of the brain's resources are being spent on compensating for the loss of hearing, there is not enough left over to deal with essential processes such as memory.

It has also been suggested that the social isolation that can be caused by hearing loss is responsible for accelerating the onset of dementia. Social isolation is a known risk factor in cognitive decline, and it appears that the link only becomes apparent when hearing loss begins to affect communication.

Can a hearing test help?

This is the million-dollar question and one that can't be answered with certainty at the moment. There are, however, reasons for being optimistic. Both of the possibilities considered above would be improved with devices such as hearing aids - the brain would not have to struggle so much to understand sounds, and communication with other people would be restored.

There is also scientific evidence to suggest that treatment can reverse the decline. A French study from 2015 concluded that cochlear implants in elderly patients led to improvements in cognitive ability and memory, as well as in hearing.

Should you get a hearing test?

The answer is 'yes'. The improvement to your quality of life by detecting and compensating for hearing loss is reason enough; the possibility that you may be helping to preserve your mental as well as physical faculties only adds to its importance. Talk to your doctor to learn more.